Regis P. Sheehan’s Black Entry is unlike any military novel I have ever read.
Admittedly, that’s not a terribly long list, glossy airport thrillers that spend too many lines describing the hero’s gun and other gear, or the brotherhood of the battalion, aren’t usually high on my list, but I’ve read enough to know the genre, and Black Entry isn’t one of them.
Based on Project Tiger, a real Central Intelligence Agency operation intended to infiltrate and influence the North Vietnamese in the first half of the 1960s, Black Entry does technically have a protagonist, but I’m not sure I’d call him the “main character”. Our protagonist, and our introduction to Saigon and the clandestine CIA operations therein is Jay Laird, Jayhawk to his friends, a Kansas boy fresh off “The Farm”, or the CIA’s Virginia training facility. Jayhawk wasn’t supposed to be running covert ops out of a blandly named cover building, but last-minute personnel shifts have changed his mission and instead of sitting cozy in the US Embassy for his first assignment, our main man is training and dropping Vietnamese infiltration teams into hostile territory under cover of darkness and praying they survive long enough to send back useful intelligence.
And that, dear readers, is the main character of this novel – Project Tiger itself, or at least the American side of Project Tiger. Once the teams parachute out of the plane, we (the readers) never hear from them again. But on the American side of things, we follow Jayhawk and his increasing frustration with a futile effort, his supervisor Jim Koval, his sponsor Paul Sarpi, his bodyguard Xiao Lin, and a half dozen other minor characters all working on some level towards making Project Tiger work.
Less a war story, or a spy story, and more of a human story, Black Entry gives readers snapshots of this operation spread over the course of two years. This is a series of vignettes, almost as much as it is a novel. Just events that are caused by, and happen to, Jayhawk and those who surround him in the tangled mess that was conflict-era Saigon.
Written with the kind of tradecraft details you’d want from a novel about a CIA influence operation, but without the slavering pages and pages of details that you get in some spy novels, Black Entry strikes a nice balance in that regard. There’s also the tantalizing fact that Sheehan is former US Diplomatic Security Service, the kind of career where a man might here all sorts of fun stories about what was really going on in Vietnam above and beyond the copious research he obviously did for this novel.
Engrossing and fast paced, Black Entry isn’t your typical, self-aggrandizing military novel. There’s something honest and raw in Sheehan’s portrayal of Jayhawk and the organization he represents and for that, if nothing else, this novel is definitely worth the read.